He was the man who could snatch 2.5 times his body weight; he was the one who could clean and jerk 3 times his body weight. At 15, he set his first world record. At the end of his career he won 3 straight Olympic gold medals and 6 world records. He was weightlifting champion, Naim Süleymanoğlu, who died at the age of 50 after having liver failure caused by cirrhosis. He underwent a liver transplant and remained in intensive care following a brain hemorrhage. But he succumbed to the disease and died in Turkey.
Süleymanoğlu was born as Naim Suleimanov in 1967 to a Turkish family residing in the Bulgarian town of Momchilgrad (Mestanlı) located in the predominantly-Turkish province of Kardzhali. He was initially interested in wrestling and football but was directed toward weightlifting due his 1.47 meter height. After he created his first world record at the age of 15 in a weightlifting championship in Brazil, everyone expected an Olympic medal from Süleymanoğlu. But he missed his first chance at Olympic success in 1984 when Bulgaria joined the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games.
In the meantime, Todor Zhivkov, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, carried out a forced assimilation policy against Bulgaria’s Turkish minority mainly residing in the southeastern and northeastern parts of the country. From the mid 1980’s to 1989, nearly half a million Turks were forced to flee Bulgaria. But the Bulgarian government was unwilling to leave Süleymanoğlu as he was an Olympic medal prospect for Bulgaria.
But the weight lifter was eager to return to his homeland and asked for help from the Turkish government. The late President of Turkey, Turgut Özal, carried out a secret mission to bring Süleymanoğlu back to Turkey through a ‘war of agents’. Speaking to reporters during the funeral ceremony for Süleymanoğlu,
Ahmet Özal, the son of a late President, reminded that his father was Süleymanoğlu’s ‘godfather’. Regarding his father’s initiatives to bring Süleymanoğlu to Turkey, Özal said, “The information regarding his wish for asylum came to my father. Upon this, we acted through MİT (National Intelligence Organization) agents; of course, Bulgarian agents were also chasing Naim. Ours turned out to be cleverer. They managed to cover their tracks, and he was brought to directly Ankara with the prime ministerial jet.”
It is during this time that he changed his name from the Bulgarian Suleimanov to the Turkish Süleymanoğlu. Özal further said that they had to pay $1 million to the Bulgarian Weightlifting Federation in order to receive permission for Süleymanoğlu to compete under the Turkish flag. The payment was described as ‘bribe’ that they had to make ahead of the 1988 European Championship in Cardiff using the discretionary fund appropriated to the prime minister.
The ‘Pocket Hercules’, as he was nicknamed mainly due to his short stature, Süleymanoğlu did not disappoint his godfather. He won the featherweight gold medal in 1988 Seoul Olympics. He twice broke the world record in the snatch on the way to winning the gold medal. Soon after, he retired just after winning the world championship in 1989 at the age of 22. However, he returned in 1991 to win a second Olympic gold medal at Barcelona in 1992.
He built up one of the sport’s greatest ever rivalries with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The rivalry was followed avidly by Turkish and Greek communities in the stadium. Süleymanoğlu and Valerios were the very last competitors remaining as they traded three straight world-record lifts. Süleymanoğlu managed to raise 187.5 kg and then Leonidis failed in his attempt to lift 190 kg. Süleymanoğlu eventually won his third Olympic gold and his last. Announcer Lynn Jones proclaimed, “You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history Leonidis, medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. This was his last where he won his third consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Süleymanoğlu made another attempt to earn another medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games but failed to lift 145 kg. But his achievement in the Olympics won the Olympic Order in 2001. In 2000 and 2004 he was elected to the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame.
He subsequently tried his hands in politics, paying particular attention to the welfare of the Turkish minority in neighboring Bulgaria. He stood as a candidate for parliament for the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But he was not successful in his attempt.
But Naim Süleymanoğlu was respected as a ‘National Hero’ and regarded as one of the greatest sports personalities in the country’s history. As the deceased weightlifter was laid to rest, thousands of people attended his funeral
ceremony. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his condolences on live television over Süleymanoğlu’s death. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said Turkey is “grateful to Süleymanoğlu for making the country and the nation proud.”